Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY              A-                   
Ireland  Great Britain  Germany  Italy  Spain  (124 mi)  2006  d:  Ken Loach 

Twas hard for mournful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us,
Ah but harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us.
And so I said: the mountain glen
I’ll seek at morning early
And join the brave united men
While soft winds shake the barley.

—Robert Dwyer Joyce (1830-1883)

A film that’s bound to draw attention to itself, as it’s a film of ideas wrapped in the blood of brothers-in-arms and history, as well as a lump in your throat story by Paul Laverty that grabs the audience from the haunting opening moments and relentlessly never lets go.  Following on the trail of John Ford’s The Informer (1935) and Italian neorealists like Rossellini’s OPEN CITY (1945) or de Sica’s BICYCLE THIEF (1948), Loach is so superb at painting compassionate portraits of progressive realism, a wrenching view of ordinary people caught up in the turmoil of the times, using a fictionalized recreation of a moment in history that has profound implications on the world we live in today, creating a style of film that defines intensity.  Set in Ireland in 1920, we see the armed to the teeth British Black and Tan soldiers not only harassing Irish youth, which might have been tolerated, but the mainstream professional class as well, bloodying a few noses, using a bullying style of thuggery that eventually leads to murder.  At a local farmhouse that becomes a focal point of the film, Damien, Cillian Murphy, witnesses the murder of one of his friends for saying his name in Gaelic instead of English, and after watching the Black and Tans knock a train conductor senseless for refusing to allow soldiers to bring their weapons on the trains, he changes his plans from attending medical school in London and joins up with the Irish Republican Army where his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is already active as a soldier.  The story follows Damien’s path as he and his brother undergo the painful transition from civilian to soldier, where violence becomes their trademark, which leaves more than a scar in their anguished souls.

Much like Melville’s portrait of the French resistance in ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969), these Republicans face an impossible dilemma, as they’re being rounded up, tortured and killed, all graphically realized in a few short moments of the film, they’re left with a huge burden on their shoulders, where the freedom of the country lies in the hands of a bunch of poor, working class kids, an underfunded rag tag few, or they can face the humiliating alternative of living the rest of their lives under the brutal dictates of a British occupation.  Loach has already shown us what the British can do, so what alternative do they have?  In one of the more wrenching scenes of the film, they have to decide what to do when they discover the identity of an informer, a young kid they’ve known all their lives, as well as his family, whose real sin is he couldn’t endure the kind of torture the IRA was used to.  What to do?  Through a series of raids and ambushes, Damien develops the friendship of Dan (Liam Cunningham) and Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), whose brother was killed earlier at her grandmother’s farmhouse, which comes into play again in another unforgettable scene when it is burned down by the Black and Tans, leaving Sinead beaten and bloodied.  As we’re being drawn into this life or death intensity of an unstoppable mayhem and neverending revenge, a truce is declared.  The Treaty of 1921 is signed by both the Irish and British, which leads to the withdrawal of the Black and Tan troops, a police force in the hands of the Irish, but the country will remain under the power of the British – the terms of peace.

Suddenly the film changes from the fight for freedom set in the vast green landscapes of the cloudy outdoors, beautifully captured by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, to the cramped back rooms of a dingy building where a progressive political discussion ensues, the heart and soul of the picture, guys in caps and vests arguing vehemently with one another over the terms of the agreement, exploring questions of history and political experiences of the working class as if their lives depended on it, as some feel they are so close to driving the British out that they’d never forgive themselves if they stopped now, while others, overwhelmed by the rising body count, welcome the prospects of peace, believing there are no circumstances under which the British would actually leave, so withdrawing their troops is a good compromise.  Damien and Teddy end up on opposite sides of the argument and both end up pursuing their goals in their own way, which only leads to disastrous results.  The final shot at that same farmhouse, the setting where so much of the pain and violence occurs and a fitting metaphor for Ireland itself, is an extraordinary picture of hurt and sorrow, as one wonders how much more anguish that farmhouse can endure?  The language of the film is in a thick Irish brogue, a good third of which is incomprehensible, and unlike a few other working class British films, there are no subtitles, which makes for a frustrating viewing, as what we can decipher is bold, brash, and at times poetic, so it might have helped, but this is one of Loach’s most powerful films, where the initial intensity never lags due to such a strong undercurrent of staggering realism.

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